With the buzz in the building escalating and the New York Islanders putting the finishing touches on a 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, the crowd at Nassau Coliseum erupted into a hopeful chant Tuesday night:
"We want play-offs! We want play-offs!"
And it looks like the 13,888 in attendance just might get their wish.
The Islanders tightened their hold on a possible postseason berth, passing the idle New York Rangers to secure sole possession of seventh place in the Eastern Conference standings. The Senators dropped a decision to the Lightning, but have a game in hand that allows them to remain in sixth place.
The players can sense just how close they are to their first playoff appearance in six years. The fans can, too.
"The Isles are a hot ticket right now," said winger Matt Moulson, who earned first star honors for the night with a goal and an assist. "It’s a lot of fun to play in front of that. This barn, you can say what you want, but it gets pretty loud when it’s packed. There’s been a lot of energy and it’s been fun playing in front of these guys."
In fact, that’s part of the motivation for the Islanders, who recognize the long-suffering fans’ desperate desire for a playoff series.
"We have a great opportunity. I think we want to give it to them," star center John Tavares said. "That’s what we’re striving for."
Tavares was credited with his 24th goal of the season as a puck glanced off Philadelphia’s Erik Gustafsson and past netminder Steve Mason with 1:37 remaining in regulation, as the Islanders pulled away from the Flyers late in the third.
Fourth-line sparkplug Casey Cizikas added an empty-net goal 28 seconds later to seal the win and, quite possibly, extinguish the Flyers remaining playoff hopes.
In years past, it was the Islanders on the verge of mathematical elimination, trying to play spoiler or make a late, unlikely push.
Not this season.
With nine games left, the Islanders don’t need to scratch and claw from behind. They need to sustain. It’s a different feeling than in previous seasons.
"They wanted to play meaningful games in the last month and they’re getting that opportunity," coach Jack Capuano said. "And they’re playing hard as a group and they’re believing in each other."
Despite some unsightly games against the Flyers earlier this season, veteran goaltender Evgeni Nabokov turned away 26 of 27 shots, while the Islanders remained disciplined to mitigate a threatening Flyers power-play.
The top line of Tavares, Moulson and Brad Boyes pulled their weight with Moulson delivering a fine effort in his return to the lineup after missing Saturday’s game with the flu. He snapped a shot past Mason on a rush to knot the score at 1-1 with 4:24 left to play in the first period and chipped in with an assist on Tavares’ goal late in the third.
"It was definitely more stressful watching the game from home," said Moulson, who saw his consecutive games played streak end at 284 games Saturday. "It was good to be back on the bench and be with the guys. It was great to be a part of it."
The second line of Josh Bailey, Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo didn’t find its way onto the scoresheet but scored key puck possession time in the third with the Flyers rolling out their top line often in hopes of tying it up.
And the third and fourth line grinded away to keep the Flyers from mounting a late-game rally.
"Our depth has been huge for us this year," Tavares said. "They were great again for us tonight and it’s just contributions from everybody."
Now, the Islanders have a chance to climb the standings. Capuano isn’t concerned with the team trying to tread water from here on out.
"I don’t think they’re satisfied," he said. "They have never been in this position before."
The next pair of games will be a tough test, as well. They travel to Boston for a game against the fourth-place Bruins on Thursday before returning home to host the Rangers at Nassau Coliseum.
And with the two division rivals neck and neck in the standings, that match promises to be exciting.
If the crowd was raucous Tuesday night, Saturday should really be a test for the acoustics.